The Military has a Quiet Problem

The Military Has a Quiet Problem

My wife and I have had a difficult time training our dog not to bark at people across our fence. We have an e-collar that provides muscle tension (not electric shocks) to help correct our dog’s behavior, but we don’t normally keep it on our dog. We were taught to use it as a corrective aid, putting it on the dog in specific situations and using it to correct specific behaviors. The prongs push into the dog’s neck and if they get wet can cause sores on the dog’s skin, so its best not to keep it on her for long periods of time. It also isn’t helpful if it is always on her and activated in situations where it isn’t very clear what behavior we want to prevent. Since it is somewhat rare that our dog barks at people across the fence (she is fine with about 80-90% of people and dogs that walk by) it is hard to pinpoint the specific times when we want to use the collar to try to correct her behavior.
Our challenge with the e-collar and correcting our dog’s behavior is pretty similar to the problem the military has with promoting the use of hearing protection among soldiers. The military wants to protect its soldiers’ hearing and has spent money equipping soldiers with ear plugs, ear muffs, and other hearing protection, but it is hard to actually get soldiers to use the tools provided to them. A major problem is that the hearing protection limits hearing to a point where soldiers would be disqualified from service if their hearing had naturally diminished to such an extent. In modern war, where most of the time there isn’t actual fighting and explosives, this is a barrier to the use of hearing protection. Mary Roach writes about this in her book Grunt:
“There’s no linear battlefield any more. The front line is everywhere. IEDs go off and things go kinetic with no warning. To protect your hearing using earplugs, you’d have to leave them in for the entire thirteen-hour patrols where, 95 percent of the time, nothing loud is happening. No one does that. That’s why [audiologist Eric] Fallon says the Military doesn’t have a noise problem. It has a quiet problem.”
Most of the time soldiers are not being shot at and IEDs are not exploding around them. But occasionally, those things do happen. Soldiers have to talk to local citizens when the shooting isn’t happening. They need to hear if someone is walking up behind them. They need to communicate in a normal manner among themselves. Ear plugs mean they can’t communicate without shouting, and that they can’t hear if someone is sneaking up on them or trying to be stealthy around the next corner. Most of war is relatively quiet and boring, so ear protection is not used.
With the unpredictable chaos of actual conflict when a firefight breaks out, the use of ear plugs is further confounded. Soldiers may not be in a position to prepare and put on ear protection at the outset of a fight, and they likely can’t pause to get their ear plugs or ear muffs on once things go kinetic. They can’t predict when or where an IED will go off and need to hear what direction fighting or shouting is coming from to best protect themselves. All of this complicates the development of new forms of hearing protection and prevents the uptake and use of existing hearing protection. The quiet problem is what leads to the noise problem and the hearing loss of soldiers. If they knew when it would get loud, where it would get loud, and could put themselves in place with hearing protection at the start of a fight, then ear plugs would work well, but the reality is that things are not so linear, and most of the time things are quite, so ear plugs cannot be used.
Hearing Loss in War

Hearing Loss In War

Hearing loss for soldiers is a major problem for individual soldiers, the armies relying on soldiers, and the societies that soldiers return to after a war. First, soldiers have to be able to hear on a battle field. They need to communicate with each other and hear threats coming. But after the war, soldiers need to be able to hear to reintegrate into society. Hearing makes a big difference with finding a good job and getting back into daily life. Finally, hearing loss has a social cost as societies try to cover the healthcare needs of soldiers who return from serving their country.
When soldiers are on the battle field, their hearing is both crucial and under threat. We hold guns in a way that brings them close to our head so that we can aim and sight the weapon while shooting. This means that our ears are next to the loud bangs of the gun as we fire it. Beyond shooting a gun, soldier’s hearing is still threatened by heavy machinery, jets and tanks, large artillery weapons, and other explosions. There is no shortage of bangs, booms, and shrieks that could harm a soldier’s hearing.
Many of these noises are not important and can be blocked out to help protect a soldier’s hearing. Ear plugs to cut the sound of a gun being fired by our head, to block the screams of overhead jets, or to muffle the explosions of bombs can be great. But those same ear plugs can make it hard to hear the footsteps or whispers of an enemy combatant. They can make it hard to hear battle commands or the small sounds that help a soldier orient themselves in a territory where hostile forces could be hiding among civilians or natural terrain. Mary Roach quotes a military official in her book Grunt to describe the challenges with using ear plugs for hearing protection:
What are we doing when we give them a pair of foam earplugs? says Eric Fallon, who runs a training simulation for military audiologists a few times a year at Camp Pendleton. We’re degrading their hearing to the point where, if this were a natural hearing loss, we’d be questioning whether they’re still deployable. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.
Earplugs and earmuffs are used to block out sound to protect hearing because we need our soldiers to have good hearing. But at the same time, they make it so that our soldiers can’t hear the things they need to hear. They diminish how much someone can hear to a level that would disqualify them from service. One result is that soldiers don’t always wear the ear protection they are provided and end up with substantial hearing loss. In both situations, whether they wear ear protection or not, there are serious costs to the soldiers on the battle field, and that can be the difference between life and death for that soldier and the soldiers depending on them.
When soldiers have hearing loss and return back to society the costs continue. Hearing aids are expensive and not always comfortable or super effective. In the Untied States we make a big effort to pick up the tab of medical expenses for our soldiers (even if we don’t always do a great job covering all the costs and providing the healthcare that veterans need). This means we continue to pay for battlefield hearing loss long after a battle has ended. And if we can’t get the hearing right, then the veteran may have trouble working, trouble reconnecting with family and friends, and trouble living a stable life. These individual costs add up and become societal costs if the soldier receives disability pay or becomes homeless. Pretty much everyone agrees we should take care of our veterans and their health, since they put their lives and bodies in the line of fire on behalf of our country, and this means that the costs of hearing loss come back home with the soldier. Hearing loss is a major problem for the army and nation whether in combat or back in civilian life.